Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Solitary Stories from the Road

On his flight from Miami to Madrid back at the beginning of June, my husband sat beside an eleven-year-old girl on her way from San Francisco to Alicante, Spain. The product of a divorced home, she travels from one end of our country to the far end of another every summer and every Christmas in order to spend time with her father.

On a recent trip I took to the New York area, two young brothers traveled alone on a USAir flight from Charlotte to the Big Apple. Their mother dropped them off at the gate on this end. I wonder who would pick them up at the other end.

Lance Armstrong recently won his seventh consecutive Tour de France. Although he is a member of a team, Lance had to ride every stage of that grueling bike race alone. And so did every member of his team as well as every member of every team that competed in that competition.

A few years ago, one of my dearest friends in the world spent an entire month walking from the border of France to the magnificent cathedral in the northwestern corner of Spain. El Camino de Santiago is a centuries-old pilgrimage that draws travelers from all over the world to traverse its long and lonely trek in groups, in pairs, and sometimes alone from its exhilirating start to its inevitable conclusion.

After reaching Santiago de Compostela, there was one final place to go: Finisterre. The end of the world. He and his friends climbed out onto the rocks, looked out over the Atlantic towards the Americas, gave thanks for traveling mercies, and some people threw their worn and broken boots out into the sea. One friend looked down at the water as it beat against the rocks and decided to go for a swim. Disregarding pleas to the contrary, he plunged into the frigid water, swam for a few short moments, and then disappeared from view. At the end of el camino at the end of the world, he arrived at the end of his life.

Even though it may not appear to be the case, all of these stories are all the same. All of these travelers are learning that life is a solitary journey. Parents bring children into a world where parents don’t always stay together. Children are shuttled back and forth through airports and arguments, through security checks and checkpoints of complete insecurity. Sometimes they sit next to people who care for them, look out for them, ask them questions, and tell them stories. Sometimes they sit alone on long flights, during long nights, and in long car rides where few words are spoken and no love is shared. I am deeply saddened when I think of how so many children learn so very early that this life is a solitary journey.

Lance and his teammates set out every morning with a plan of attack. Who would provide protection for Lance, who would keep pursuers at a distance, and who would give up their own dreams of success – all the answers to those questions were mapped out before any of them took to the road. But each man rode on his own seat. Anyone who fell down had to pick himself up. Anyone who fell behind was left behind. Spouses, children, friends, lovers, and other loyal supporters could do nothing but watch from the sidelines, speak to their beloved on a cell phone, and wait anxiously at the finish line every evening. My husband, my children, my friends, and my co-travelers can cheer for me, protect me from some enemies, and provide succor when I am in need. But I ride this life cycle alone.

I have visited a couple of those welcome stations along el camino de Santiago in Spain. I have watched the walkers as they check in to that private suite of reflection at the end of a stage as the sun sets. Their stages are vastly different from those of the Tour de France. No one is keeping time. No cameras document the finishers. Spouses aren’t waiting with Gatorade and massage therapists. These men and women walk alone. They think. They cry and they pray. Slowly, they make their solitary way to the inevitable end of the journey.

Not long ago, I stood at Finisterre with Antonio. I looked down on those jagged rocks. I wept as I imagined him there dealig with the untimely death of his friend. I wish I could have been there to comfort my friend when he lost his friend. But like every traveler on every airplane, every bike, every car, every bus, every train, and every pair of feet, like that sweet little Spanish-American girl, those brothers on their way to New York, and Antonio, I walk my life journey alone. I travel alone. I carry my bags and my burdens alone. I think and pray and read and write alone.

Sooner or later, though, I cry out for help, yearn for companionship, and long for comfort on the road. Gratefully, my Help, my Comforter, my Companion hears me when I call, and my cry for help has never gone unanswered. But it still feels awfully lonely sometimes.

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